Henrietta Lacks was a poor, young, black mother of five in rural Virginia. She was diagnosed at Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer. Dr. George Gey soon discovered “that Mrs. Lacks’ cells were unlike any of the others he had ever seen: where other cells would die, [her] cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.”
This NPR story explains: “For the past 60 years Lacks’ cells have been cultured and used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine. Her cells were commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profit for the medical researchers who patented her tissue.”
These incredible cells— nicknamed “HeLa” cells, from the first two letters of her first and last names — “are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They have been used… to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work.”
Rebecca Skloot is the author of the 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She writes about the African-American woman who passed away on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31. Yet her cancer cells are one of the most important cell lines in medical research.
But Skloot also addresses “the collision between ethics, race, and medicine,” especially for Henrietta’s family, who, at the time of the book’s publication, could not afford health insurance. The writer founded The Henrietta Lacks Foundation in 2010, which has awarded more than 50 grants to many qualifying members of Henrietta Lacks’ immediate family for “health care and dental assistance, tuition and books, job training…” It has “also awarded education grants to the family members of the survivors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies.”
And in June of 2018: “A lawyer representing the eldest son and two grandsons of Henrietta Lacks, whose ‘immortal cells’ have been the subject of a best-selling book, a TV movie, a family feud, cutting-edge medical research, and a multibillion-dollar biotech industry, announced … that she plans to file a petition seeking ‘guardianship’ of the cells.
“The question we are dealing with is ‘Can the cells sue for mistreatment, misappropriation, theft and for the profits earned without their consent?'”
For ABC Wednesday